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Black Children in the Child Protection System

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Published: Thu, 11 Jan 2018

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, child abuse among black African families has attracted a lot of attention, academically and politically in British social work practice following the tragic death of Victoria Climbie (Laming, 2003) and Adam (Sale, 2005). Many of the research and literature on child abuse since the 1989 Children Act have not extensively discussed the aspect of poverty and child abuse. For many years social work interventions with black African families and children alleged of cases of child abuse have been a controversial topic. The difficulties black African families experience are not limited only to the foreign culture they find themselves in, but other issues may be significant, such as cultural differences in child-rearing, poverty, government policy and the intervention tools and processes.

Research evidence suggests that black African children in the UK are over-represented in the child protection system for a variety of reasons such as physical and sexual abuse or neglect. Chand (1999) research on black African families and the child protection system highlights the over-representation of black families (58%) compared to white families (42%) on referrals involving physical injury. Another research shows that referrals involving inadequate supervision of children are disproportionately higher among black African families than white families. Some black African children are involved in the child protection system because their families are unable to provide adequate care for them. Bernard & Gupta (2008) study also found that black African children and families are more likely than white families to be drawn into the child protection system on the basis of inherent differences in beliefs and child-rearing practices.

The aim of this work is to suggest that black African children and families, due to a number of reasons, are more or less likely to be investigated of child abuse by social workers and other professions. The possible implications for black families being more or less likely to be investigated are either black African children will become over-represented in local authority care under the child protection system or they will not receive the appropriate intervention by social workers under the child welfare system and make children to be subjected to further abuse or neglect by their parents (Chand, 1999). According to Chand (1999) even when abuse among black families is identified, the service provision for the abused children are hampered by lack of resources and this cause delays in assessment and the provision of treatment where specialized services are required. The 1989 Children Act may classify many African children on the child protection register in the UK as children in need as their parents are more likely to live below the poverty line (DoH, 1989). Poverty is linked with reports of abuse and neglect and African families are proportionately more likely to live in poverty than many of the other communities in the UK (Bernard & Gupta, 2008). According to Fontes (2006) people who are affected by child abuse are nestled by a variety of social and material domains that are highly interconnected and interactive. Therefore the poverty status of African families living in the UK is an important factor to be considered by social workers working with African families alleged of child abuse.

Many African families have negative perception about social workers who work on cases of alleged child abuse, as they employ an assessment and intervention process that is based on euro-centric child protection procedures and as such view black families, their culture and lifestyle as inherently problematic and need correcting (Chand, 1999). This negative perception of social work practice by African families and children living in the UK breed grounds for mistrust and apprehension and make working with such families a major challenge for social workers.

Bernard & Gupta (2008) argued that black African children and their families are more likely than white families to be investigated of child abuse and therefore are over-represented on the child protection register under the category of poor parenting behaviours. However, black African families are also under-represented in receiving preventative supports such as housing needs, financial benefits that is required to address any family needs and to improve children welfare. Singh (2006) findings show that African families and their entrenched cultural and social perceptions of parenting behaviours are difficult to understand in the context of contemporary social work practice and therefore social workers may be quick to intervene in such families.

Bernard & Gupta (2008) also found in their research work that the majority of black African families who have migrated to the UK because of war, poverty, and tribal anarchies in their home countries, also have difficulty not only how to adapt to the western culture in which they find themselves but how they may be viewed by social workers involved in child care. Most social work professionals working with black African families do not appreciate the poverty background of such families and would feel justified to make judgements resulting into mistrust and disengagement from both parties. However, according to Bernard & Gupta (2008) the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families places a requirement on social workers to consider families’ backgrounds and cultural perspectives when dealing with cases of child abuse. Korbin (2004) argues that social workers face difficulties in employing appropriate intervention in child abuse cases as the processes involved in child abuse assessment may be complex and parental behaviours may not be the same in different cultures and socio-economic settings. In view of this perception, Bernard & Gupta (2008) states ‘that a focus on maltreatment or dysfunction within African families can risk stereotyping this ethnic minority as deficient, thus fostering pathological viewpoint of African family relationships'(p 478 ).

This raises the question of what type of social work intervention is needed to be used by social workers working with black African families living in economic poverty so that vulnerable children are fully supported and protected, and not just drawing these children into the child protection system. This professional dilemma in social work practice presents a major challenge and therefore, calls for a new perspective in work ideologies and practices, the way information is disseminated on how the child protection system works, training on child-rearing differences in black African culture, social work values and enhancing collaboration with other professions. With a change in social work practice, social workers will develop the skills to distinguish between the styles of parenting inherent in African families which is not necessarily harmful to children and those parenting behaviours that are harmful. This point will be further discussed in chapter two.

The dissertation will draw on social work theories, policies and practice, key models and literature search from electronic journals to web search on child abuse, social work intervention and child protection system. The main emphasis of this dissertation looks at the available literature on black African families involved in the child protection system, focusing on specific poverty-related parenting practices that give rise to issues of child abuse. The methodology for this work is mainly qualitative and the literature obtained from both primary and secondary sources. The dissertation examines various issues such as how social work professionals should perceive and manage child abuse among black African families living below the poverty-line, what interventions social workers need to employ that would support these families to provide adequate child-care for their children and the possible reasons why black African children and their families may be over-represented in the child protection systems.

The first chapter examines the literature on black African children and the child protection system. Chapter two provides a discussion on the increased complexity of social work intervention in child abuse cases involving black African families living in poverty. It also analyse how poverty could complicate parenting behaviours that impact on child-rearing which, tends to draw black African children living in the UK into the child protection arena. Then chapter three draws on legislations and policies regulating social work practices in the UK. It also examines contemporary social work practice in child abuse cases among African families. Chapter four critically analyses the various methods of interventions available to social workers when working with black African families. Finally chapter five discusses the implications of social work intervention among African families living in poverty.

CHAPTER ONE

BLACK AFRICAN CHILDREN AND CHILD PROTECTION SYSTEMS

The prevalence of Black children in the child protection system

Many children are drawn into the child protection system for many different reasons. The majority of these children go through distressing and damaging experiences, which may include physical, emotional, sexual abuse and neglect. Some children living with poor families come under the child protection system as result of families’ parenting behaviours and practices, oppression, discriminations and cultural values. Considering the child protection system and black African families, Bernard & Gupta (2006) have critically analysed the evidence on the disproportionate representation of black African families on the child protection register. Brophy et al (2003) study highlights the proportion of minority ethnic families and their children represented on the child protection register involve several allegations about parental behaviours and practices. Chand (1999) states that ‘different child-rearing methods used in different cultures mean that as an outsider, understanding what is the norm and what is deviant is problematic…and trying to distinguish the risks in one family from the another, social workers may fall back on moral judgements'(p.72).

In contemporary social work practice many social workers are faced with difficulty situations when assessing and making decisions on child care issues among African children and their families who are living in poverty. It is paramount in view of available literature to say that when social workers acknowledge and understands these families’ financial backgrounds and their cultural identity through effective communications, it is possible they will come to terms with some of their parenting behaviours and practices. However, where families go over the boundaries of child-rearing to inflict physical and emotional harm on their children, which is evident in Victoria Climbie inquiry, it should be understood that such families have gone beyond what is acceptable not only within the western culture but in their own culture (Chand, 1999). Therefore, if social workers understand the causes of parental behavioural patterns of African families, they will be well-informed to determine whether a particular parenting behaviours should be considered within the protection process or to provide advice and support for such families under children in need (Chand, 1999).

The challenges social work practitioners experience when using the assessment processes as detailed in the Climbie Inquiry (Laming, 2003) is crucial to the safety and protection of black children whose families have immigrated into the UK. Sometimes social workers may be stereotyped as racist and ethnocentric, as they do not acknowledge and address issues of poverty-related parental behaviours of African families in the assessment process of a child abuse case (Chand, 1999). Under the Government’s Every Child Matters policy, social workers first priority is to ensure children live with their families if it is best to do so. In addition to this policy, it is the responsibility of the social services or local authorities to create the enabling environment for the provision of preventative services to families so that these families can provide appropriate care for their children. According to the Department for Education and Skills (2006b) statistical data a significant proportion of black African children are on the child protection register. A number of studies tend to support the view that families of these children lives in poverty and struggle to raise their children to the standard set up by government legislation. Therefore it is difficult to say whether social services are meeting the agenda detailed in the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (Department of Health, 2000) which places on social workers the responsibility to consider families’ backgrounds and cultural values when dealing with child care issues.

Thoburn et al.’s (2005) review of the nature and outcomes of child welfare services for black children concluded that African children are almost twice as likely to be looked after than the white majority children in the population as a whole, which then suggest, that some of these children will be accommodated under section 20 of the 1989 Children Act, by virtue of being raised by families living in poverty. However, there are a number of contributory factors which could be perceived as important in understanding the involvement of black African families with social work agencies and the resultant over-representation of their children in the child protection system. Child abuse and neglects may be linked to poor parental practices and poverty by families who are supposed to be responsible for looking after these children. Therefore the poverty experienced by many African families and children may be resolved through a more preventative welfare services rather than child protection services. Platt (2006) study on the refocusing initiative on social work practices from the child protection orientation to a child welfare orientation underpins government legislation, policies and procedures and management efforts to redirect social work interventions more towards welfare services. Also through child welfare practices social workers may appreciate the difficulties that families experience and may endeavour to meet children and their family financial and social needs through a range of social and preventative services.

The government legislations and policies

The most relevant legislation in the UK that aims to protect children from abuse and harm is the Children Act (1989), of which Section 47 expects local authorities to make enquiries into cases where they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm and Section 17 makes provision for a child to be assessed with a view to the provision of services to children in need (Platt, 2006). Therefore there are two definitive objectives of the Children Act (1989), the child protection focus and the child welfare focus. Many black African children referred to social services under the child protection system may not necessarily be suffering from any harm or neglect if the situation is considered in the context of parenting behaviours and practices (Chand, 1999). According to Platt (2006), the Audit Commission recommendation to shift from the popular investigational work use by social workers to a family support services, was a result of many failings identified by many other government bodies. This wind of change for social work practice was accepted by the Department of Health, after examining the publication, Child Protection: Messages from Research (Department of Health, 1995). Chand (1999) argues that the child protection system tends to draw too many cases inappropriately onto the child protection register, of which many may be classified as border-line cases, that could have being managed under the children welfare services.

Whilst other research findings support the view that the child protection system seems to have achieved as much as could be expected in terms of preventing further abuse of vulnerable children. Hayes and Spratt (2008) argue that such achievement is not in ways most readily understood by those who legislate, set policy and measure performance. Bernard & Gupta (2008) highlights in their study that, ‘in situations in which there is a risk of abuse or neglect of African children, as with other minority ethnic children, the literature suggests that fear of difference, combined with racist stereotypes, may both exacerbate defensive practice, leading to avoidance that can leave children unprotected’ (p486). The Department of Health (1995) emphasises that social work professionals need to rely on various policies and measures since child abuse is not an absolute concept and most family behaviours have to be seen in context before decisions of abuse are made (Chand 1999, p. 70).

Although child protection social workers in the UK are trained to follow the official guidance as set out in the Department of Health (1988) Protecting Children: A guide for Social Workers undertaking a Comprehensive Assessment, this guidance in the context of black African children and their families, fall short in addressing their basic needs (Chand, 1999). Against this background, the quality of social work assessment and, hence intervention process used by social workers may stereotype black African families, their parenting behaviours and practice and culture as inherent indicators of child abuse and need correcting (Chand, 1999). The fundamental dilemma facing contemporary social work practice is the manner and extent social workers should engage in social welfare services rather than in investigational procedures and processes, so as to redirect its efforts primarily to the poor and needy in society (Karger & Hernandez, 2004). From the 1990s there have been proactive and sustained efforts on behalf of the UK government to develop and promote legislation and policies, which challenge the influence of a child protection culture on management and social work practice, which notably are perceived as distorting the balance of service provision to children and families (Spratt & Callan, 2004).

Pringle (1998) argued that the family support strategies may focus on the generalization of responses compared with child protection procedures that target actual nature of the alleged abuse. Cleaver & Walker (2004) argued in their research, that the implementation of this switch from child protection to child welfare services by social work agencies can have negative and difficult impact on the government Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families. According to Hayes & Spratt (2008) the government has seen a remarkable reduction in the number of children drawn into the child protection system, which commends local authorities’ effort to help achieve performance targets. Spratt & Callan (2004) criticized the reductions in number of children on the child protection register, as being achieved largely due to modern governance and measures to promote compliance with performance targets. However, following Baby ‘P’ report children’s services watchdog, Ofsted, reported that a review of 173 serious cases in April 2009, found that social workers and other agencies, failed to act swiftly to put children suffering from physical and neglect abuse onto the child protection register (www.ofstednews.ofsted.gov.uk/article). Ofsted also identified certain poor social work practices such as the failure of social services workers to identify and report signs of abuse, poor recording and communication, and limited knowledge and application of basic policies and procedures (www.ofstednews.ofsted.gov.uk/article).This report has since seen an increase in the number of children drawn into the child protection system.

According to Chand (1999), the UK government reiterated that the primary and official duties of local authorities within the context of the 1989 Children Act is to focus more on safeguarding children through the provision of advice and support services under ‘children in need’. In Spratt & Callan (2004) study the Department of Health estimates four million children living in England are vulnerable to harm or neglect, due to their families living far below the poverty line, yet only 300-400,000 of these children are known to social services at any given time. Thoburn et al (2000) study on families, whose children were at risk of suffering emotional abuse and neglect, shows that 98% of the children brought to the attention of child protection system, their families live in poverty. Parton (1997) argued that due to the correlation between poverty and the need for provision of public services, only the very small number of vulnerable children who are designated as children in need receive services under the welfare service. Spratt & Callan (2004) suggest that a more effective way social work can help such vulnerable children, particularly black African children, who may be over-represented on the child protection register, is the government increasing resources to local authorities, increasing the number of social workers and reshaping the social services system.

Therefore, with regard to the governments provision of resources, legislation and policies, the model or intervention approach social workers may employ when working with black African families living in extreme poverty, will determine whether a family receives a child protection service or a child welfare service.

CHAPTER TWO

POVERTY AND BLACK AFRICAN FAMILIES

Poverty and Child Protection

The area of poverty and child protection with black African families has been the source of controversy in British social work research for many decades. Many researchers find a correlation between economic deprivation such as poverty and social exclusion and parenting behaviour and practice, child-rearing capabilities and skills which are a prerequisite for proper child development anywhere in the world. Moreover, according to Jordan (2001) poverty is correlated with reports of abuse and neglect. For instance, the National Centre for Children in Poverty found in 1990 that ‘the incidence of child abuse and neglect, as well as the severity of the maltreatment reported, is much greater for children from low-income families than for others’ (Jordan, 2001 p.1). As a large number of Africans in the UK live below the poverty line, it may be reckoned that most black African children on the child protection register live below the poverty line.

Brophy et al (2003) argue that many families brought to the attention of the child protection system lives in extreme poverty and may experience social exclusion. Black African children living in the UK may be over-represented in the child protection system for reasons such as physical abuse or neglect; therefore it is understandable to say that there is a correlation between abuse and parenting behaviours and practices. The question is why African families and their children living in poverty, who are alleged of child abuse, are over-represented in the child protection system? Sossou &Yogtiba (2008) noted in their study that a child is the most valuable asset of any traditional African family, as children symbolise status, respect and completeness of the nuclear family, if that is the case, then it is ironical to see African families and their children to be over-represented in the child protection system.

Many black African families in the UK still lives below the poverty-line though they undertake different types of unskilled or skilled jobs, as they support large families in their countries of origin (Anane-Agyei, 2002). It may be reckon that poverty is linked with other social disadvantages such as poor education, limited employment opportunities, and poor health and may have devastating consequences for children’s development and life chances. Research shows that many African families and their children may have insecure immigration status and their existing financial predicaments only help to complicate their parenting behaviours and practices. Penrose (2002) study shows that African families seeking asylum are often forced to live at level of poverty that is just unacceptable, and this puts financial constraint on them to provide adequate childcare for their children. Unemployment levels are known to be very high among African families, and they are also subject of stigmatization and prejudice by the larger community that are suppose to accept them.

According to Bernard & Gupta (2008) immigration and asylum status determines income, employment opportunities and access to support services for many African people in the UK and these issues of entitlement to services only complicate their cases. Some African families living in the UK may be without jobs and may not also be entitled to social and economic benefit and therefore may find it difficult to care for their children. Children growing up with parents living in poverty may be deprived of proper childhood development ( Montith & Eithne, 2005). African families living in poverty and failing to provide good care for their children may be perceived by social work professionals as failing in their parental responsibilities (Chand, 1999). For this reason, social workers may intervene in such families and often than not they are drawn into the child protection system.

Amin & Oppenheim (2002) argue that the unfamiliar cultural expectation of black African families living in the UK somehow contribute to the high level of poverty they experience. Research shows that many African families suffer from institutional oppression including housing, employment, education and health which not only means that they are more likely to experience poverty and deprivation, but also more susceptible to social work interventions in child abuse or maltreatment allegations. Corby (1993) noted that it may be expected that black African children are over-represented in child abuse cases because their families are more open to surveillance as they show high levels of poverty that complicate their parenting behaviours (Chand, 1999 p73). In a broader perspective, Pearce & Bozalek (2004) emphasise that ‘the child protection system that exist in Britain will be unfamiliar to many African families, especially those more recently arrived, as similar state systems do not exist in most African countries, particularly where socio-economic factors, political instability and violence overshadow intra-familial child maltreatment and effective intervention into child abuse and neglect’ (Bernard & Gupta, 2006 p481).

Brophy et al (2003) study supports the above assertion that African families experience discrimination and insecurity in child abuse cases, as the tools for assessing abuse are often euro-centric bias and prejudice the families. Chand (1999) study expresses the awareness that black African families are disadvantaged through oppression in all areas of society and this should not reflect in social work practice.

Gibbon et al (2003) findings show that the child protection system was picking up more alleged child abuse cases inappropriately and putting more families and children on the child protection register than children who are subject to social welfare procedures. Therefore the over-representation of African families on the child protection register somehow, undermines the government aim of keeping children with families and reducing the number of children that are drawn onto the child protection register. The Department of Health (1995) document on child protection identified some pertinent shortcomings with the child protection system, as it seems to encourage unnecessary child protection interventions in border-line child abuse cases. Bernard & Gupta (2008) in their study of black African children and the child protection system suggest that there are a series of interactions between environmental factors such as poverty, immigration status and social exclusion that affect the life chances of many African children and the capacity of their parents to provide adequate care. Dowling (1999) realise that social work practice in the UK focus less on poverty-alleviating strategies but throw more resources behind safeguarding and protecting vulnerable children from abuse or maltreatment. Social workers need to understand the context in which abuse occurs, irrespective of race and culture, to develop an assessment and intervention process that is fairer for black families as they are more likely to suffer racism and oppression. In view of the above argument, it is pertinent that social workers know when to employ preventative measures to support black African families who have financial needs and when to take such families through the child protection system in the quest for safeguarding children.

All these factors together create complex needs for many African children living in the UK, and, in many circumstances increase their vulnerabilities which draw them into the child protection arena. Bernard & Gupta (2008) argued that only by developing effective relationships with African families can social work professionals can begin to understand their parenting behaviours and practices.

Poverty and Child Welfare Services

Current literature shows that poverty experience by most black African families living in the UK could be alleviated by social work services that offer a pragmatic welfare services rather than drawing these families and children into the child protection system. Brophy et al (2003) study suggests that immigration and asylum issues, combined with poverty, are likely to be some of the reasons for the increased complexity for social work professionals assessing and intervening child abuse cases involving black African children. The Department of Health challenges social workers with the responsibility to work with Section 17 of the Children Act 1995, so as to provide adequate social support for children in need via the child welfare services (Platt, 2006). However, social work agencies have not fully achieved the government agenda of alleviating poverty experience by many families and children due to inadequate resources at all levels of social work practice.

The Department of Health have indicated that most families, struggle to bring up their children in conditions of material and emotional adversity (DoH, 2001). For instance black African families experiencing poverty may fail in their responsibility to provide proper care for their children as they spent almost all their time working to make ends meet. Such children hardly experience family treats such as going on a family holiday trip, having birthday parties and they are deprived of having basic playing toys and games that help children to learn and grow into adulthood. The lack of affordable basic needs for children of poor families complicated with other social adversities may contribute to poor children developing aggressive behaviours, low self-esteem, picking up awkward attitudes, and may to suffer from social deprivation. Fontes (2005) realises that many traditional immigrant families, where black Africans are part of, may use an authoritative style of parenting, demanding total obedience and respect from their children.

Although these parental practices may not necessarily constitute child abuse, it may clash with the child-rearing norms, and thus seems to bring African children and families to the attention of the child protection system (Fontes, 2005). When social workers start acknowledging borderline child abuse cases and understand the difficulties families living in poverty experience in raising their children, they would be able to strike a good balance between when to employ a child protection intervention and a child welfare intervention (Spratt & Callan, 2004). It is evident that children living in poverty may benefit from the child welfare services as stipulated in section 17 of the 1989 Children Act, as it aims at alleviating poverty in families


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